Can anyone out there speak “British”?

thumb dcameron05 1Is there anyone out there in GetReligionLand who speaks the English dialect called “British” well enough to help me break the code in the following story by John Daniszewski (God bless you) of the Los Angeles Times? It concerns the rise of the ever-so-slightly modish David Cameron as the new leader of the Tory Party at the ripe old age of 39, which is even younger than a TV cyberanchor here in the USA.

Please understand that I know all about the rising tide of secularization in modern Great Britain and I know that social issues do not play much of a role over there.

Please understand that I also know that the Brits are horrified by what many consider the rise of the insane theocrats on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Nevertheless, I sense some cultural issues lurking between the lines of this part of the story:

With British voters having given the Labor Party’s Tony Blair a third term as prime minister in May, Cameron was expected to pledge to put the Conservatives back in touch with ordinary people — just as the last three party chairmen have promised. …

The Conservative Party has been dogged by the perception that it is a declining club for white, elderly, hunt-riding, middle-class, rural and suburban southern Englanders who belong to the Church of England. (Cameron noted Tuesday that women are “scandalously underrepresented” in the party and pledged to correct that.)

Can anyone out there help me with the translation?

You see, I tend to think of the Church of England as a force on the left side of the cultural divide and, sorry, but I get that impression by reading British newspapers as well as following the political and doctrinal exploits of the Episcopal Church here in America and the Anglican Church of Canada. And what does the phrase “back in touch with ordinary people” mean in England, as opposed to here in America? Does that have religious or secular overtones in politics over there? And, if you read on, you will also notice that Cameron is using “compassionate conservatism” lingo and we all know where that came from.

Input. Need Input.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • ceemac

    At times in the past the Episcopal Church has been referred to as the “Republican Party at Prayer.” I wonder if the Church of England has ever been referred to as “The Tory Party at Prayer.”

  • Salamander

    I’m inclined to think of it as having a “member of the Establishment” kind of connotation, rather than a religious one. You know, like the equivalent of a country-club Republican (rich, white, old-money types who play a lot of golf and have a weekend home in Connecticut) vs. a red-state Republican which (at least here in Massachusetts) implies blue-collar, gun-totin’, SUV-driving, churchgoing bubbas from down south.

    My British friends have left me with the distinct impression that religion in Britain is pretty much either the Church of England or nothing. They were all rather mystified by the plethora of denominations, churches, sects, etc., here in the States.

  • tmatt

    ceemac: But, today, the liberal mainline world is hard, hard left — especially at the level of pulpits and professors — and very loyal to the Democrats. And the country club is very Libertarian on social issues. My phrase for the Episcopal Church is that it has become NPR at prayer.

    Salamander: This is my point. Then what ARE the code words for actual religious connections and content? Are we to think that religious issues play NO role in British politics? I mean, other than showing distain for W Bush as a snake fondling holy roller?

  • Bruce Geerdes

    I’ll second Salamander’s impression. I think “ordinary people” in this context means anyone not in the upper class.

  • Avram

    High church or low church?

    Salamander, that’s because most of the people in England who dissented from the Established church came here to America.

  • andy chamberlain

    I say chaps, you need a Brit to speak up here!

    Ceemac might have strayed into irony here, because of course the Church of England used to be known as the “Tory party at prayer”. The church of England traveled along the political specturm to the left in the 50′s and 60′s and has stayed there until more recently when, rather than travel anywhere as a single unit, it has rather exploded into three bits – a (larger) evangelical bit, and two (smaller) bits, one liberal the other anglo catholic. These are generalisations but they do help.

    The LA times definition of the C of E tory as a rural middle class character is a bit dated now.

    As far as “getting in touch with ordinary people” is concerned, this has as much to do with simply attracting enough votes to gain power as anything else, although it has some roots in the 80′s when Margaret Thatcher was PM. She seemed to be able to attract the support of a great swathe of skilled blue collar people who were able to buy some stock and also buy their own houses (until then owned by the local council).

    Since 1997 the tories have been trying to ‘reconnect’ with more people, whilst not returning to Thatcherite values.

    Politicians don’t tend to “do” religion over here, partly because we Christians represent a smaller group (8-10% maybe of the population compared to 35-40% for the US) and also because religion is unpopular – I’m afraid a lot of people look at Bush and some of his ‘fundie friends’ as they see it, and they don’t like what they see. And to be honest they don’t like what they see of Islam either. Maybe both faiths suffer from a bad press, as we all know the press doesn’t get religion!!

    Finally, if you look at active members, the C of E is not all there is. According to the Operation World Handbook, my copy dates from 2001, there are 6.5m Christians in the UK and only 1.3m of those are Anglican.

    These are subjects about which books are written so I am only scratching the surface here.

  • Avram

    Terry, I’m about as mystified as you, but I think there has to be some connection between British politics and religion, because of articles like this one about the appointment of the new Archbishop of York. Apparently, the Prime Minister gets veto power of the choosing of bishops, and many bishops have votes in the House of Lords. To my American ear, that’s just bizarre. Also, Parliament has an ecclesiastical committee, but it’s been having trouble scraping up a quorum. I feel like I’m reading about an alien world.

  • Chris Jones

    Ceemac –

    The moniker “the Republican party at prayer” was a knockoff of the English original “the Tory party on its knees”. It was never really all that apt a slogan; the Republican party has always included many different denominations among its activists and candidates. The first Republican president (Abraham Lincoln) was certainly no Episcopalian. Subsequent Republicans such as McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Coolidge were (I think) Presbyterians.

    And if it ever made sense, it certainly does not now. You’ll find more “Republicans at prayer” in a Southern Baptist Church than in your typical Episcopal Church.

    In the UK, however, there has been a much stronger correlation between the Church of England and the Tory party. First of all, support for the Established Church was one of the founding principles of the Conservative Party. And the “non-conformist” Churches in the UK have always been associated with the opposition to the Tories, whether Liberal (in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries) or Labour (up to the present). Liberal and Labour prime ministers have often been non-Anglican, such as the Liberal David Lloyd-George, who was a Methodist, and Labourite Ramsay McDonald who was (I believe) a Presbyterian. I’m having trouble thinking of a Tory PM who was not an Anglican. I am sure that there probably has been one, but I just can’t think of it.

  • Wyclif

    >>At times in the past the Episcopal Church has been referred to as the “Republican Party at Prayer.”

  • Wyclif

    Whoever wrote that quip clearly hasn’t visited the average Episcopal Church lately.

  • The Ombudsman

    Remember Orwell’s fond description of England? I believe John Major, last Conservative PM, used it in stump speeches. Orwell described an England in which, among other things, “old maids bicycled to holy communion through the morning mist.” Something like that.

    David Cameron wants everyone to know that, unlike John Major, he has no use for the old maids. He is hip and with it. His bike is not of the sit-up-and-beg variety that the elderly Conservative voters of Britain favour; even though he lives in Notting Hill, he uses a mountain bike. His wife is not a member of the Woman’s Institute; she has never made strawberry jam in her entire life.

    Yes, yes, yes, this England, this Orwellian vision of a very different sort than 1984 had not existed for quite some time, if it ever did. But it is a potent myth, and Mr. Cameron wants to show he has no time for it. After all, if the C of E really was the Tory Party at prayer, that does’t really guarantee a majority, does it? Certainly not, Prime Minister.

    And, after all, note last name: Mr. Cameron is not only a resident of hip-to-death Notting Hill, he is a Scot by race, if nothing else. He’s not supposed to care about the C of E.

  • Jack O’Neill

    I don’t know how long Merrie Olde England has been gone, but I think it was extinguished by the end of the Second World War, and Indian independence and the Suez in 1956 ended the last yearnings of the Tory imperialist nostalgia. It now seems that the only sincere belief of the public, meaning political and religious, Britons is in utilitarianism, and it crosses political party lines. Anything can be tolerated as long as it is not criminal. I believe the British citizens are more respectful of their institutions, including the hollow church and the multicultural education establishment, than are Americans. This sort of explains the general across-the-board toleration of homosexuals and foreigners, who used to be held in polite disdain by the Tories at least. I think the recent domestic terrorism will lead to second thoughts about the value of multiculturalism. Only the grace of God can help the Church, as well as us, of course.

  • Charming Billy

    First, keep in mind that the C of E is literally part of the English establisment: it’s the established church of the English state. As such, old fashioned pillars of the establishment are expected to ritually support the C of E — or so the stereotype goes. That’s not to say these folks think of themselves as devout Christians, much less subscribe to the fashionable leftist views found among C of E clergy.

    This is my outsider’s take on it. However, when seeking to understand English society, I think only a native could explain all the assumptions and understandings that go into making up the stereotype of “white, elderly, hunt-riding, middle-class, rural and suburban southern Englanders who belong to the Church of England.”

  • Charming Billy

    PS Does this help?

    Ever heard of a “Trendy Vicar”? A “Trendy Vicar” and a liberal Episcopal priest are stereotypes in the both US and England. To some degree the stereotype implies the same thing in both countries: leftist politics and well meaning but tone deaf liturgical innovations. However, the English don’t see the Trendy Vicar in the same way as we see a stereotypical hard left Episcopal priest who’s rebelling against his fundamentalist upbringing. The Trendy Vicar’s a stock comic type rather than a crusading hero or (meddling anti-hero). Or at least he was 20 years ago when I last resided in England.

    Polarizations in English politics and society are still largely class based (I find it more helpful to think in terms of caste, rather than class, when pondering English society), so that left/right differences that don’t impinge directly upon raw class and power politics can be treated with a degree of detachment that is absent in our society. The result is that one’s adherence to a particular left/right cultural issue is viewed more as a matter of temperament or a natural outcome of one’s background, rather than a fateful moral choice. A “Trendy Vicar” can therefore hold all sorts of loopy left wing views and still serve the establishment.

    Hope that sheds some light.

  • Jim Dahlman

    I lived in England for 5 years during the 1980s, Maggie Thatcher’s heyday. I was the pastor of a small “free church” in the Labour stronghold of Wigan. (Orwell reference: The Road to Wigan Pier.) My impression by that time was the Church of England was (a) officially part of the establishment, but (b) kicking against everything Tory.

    That was the era when the bishop of Liverpool published “Bias to the Poor” (which I liked) and the newly appointed bishop of Durham (since retired) referred to the resurrection as “a conjuring trick with bones” (which I didn’t like). But, of course, there was also a healthy — if less visible — evangelical presence in the CE, as with John Stott, David Watson, and others. At the same time, Mrs. Thatcher was known to make the occasional religion-tinged speech herself — even as the Evangelical Alliance (roughly equivalent to the U.S. NAE in theology) was criticizing her for many of her domestic policies that hurt the poor and her foreign policies that seemed too bellicose.

    Christianity in England is a patchwork, with orthodoxy or lack thereof not denominationally determined. Nor are social-political views. Two of the most thoroughly orthodox Chritian friends I had were the vicar of our parish church (CE)and a lay preacher in the Methodist Church who happened to be our region’s member of the Euro Parliament — and thoroughly Labour.

    My guess: Cameron and the Tories are speaking vaguely enough to let potential voters hear what they want to hear, appealing to their “conservative” interests, whether they are generically social, or economic or religious. Some political strategies do work on both sides of the Pond. (From what I can tell, Tony Blair has talked much more openly about his faith than Cameron has about his, but I haven’t dug deeply, so I could be wrong.)

  • Kevin Powell

    My guess is that, like many mainline churches, the clergy are more politically liberal than the laity.